Saturday, April 21, 2012

Literary Criticism and Mass Effect 3

I wrote an article for a game review site called Gamerfold.  I know a lot's been said about the ending to Mass Effect 3 and why it was/wasn't a mistake, but as a guy who studies stories for a living, I feel like there's a lot that isn't being said about the merits of fixing a story.  Yes these comments are posted elsewhere, but I wanted to keep a record of these thoughts here on my own blog, so without further ado:

Literary Criticism and the End of Mass Effect 3

Warning: Spoilers.
A whole lot has already been said about the Mass Effect 3 ending, and with Bioware announcing they will expand-but not change-the ending, the discussion is more or less moot. But still, there’s something I need to get off my chest.
Whenever people, usually reviewers, come to Bioware’s defense, they always bring up the same points: they claim it’s wrong to ask Bioware to change the ending, they claim it could lead to a horrible precedent of games being ‘reviewed’ by audiences, and it could lead to the end of art in video games as we know it.
The people claiming these things readily admit that even they are not really experts on this. When it comes to artistic criticism in games we don’t have many experts, mostly just fans who get paid and have a wide forum to talk to about their opinions.
I really don’t want to start my video game critiquing career off on the wrong foot, but there’s just something I’ve got to say on this subject. You see, when it comes to story and story criticism, I do consider myself an expert. I have a degree in theater and film, I’ve studied novel-writing with Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, the last Wheel of Time books,) and I’m married to a woman who is a trained literary critic, book editor, and currently a graduate student in Comparative Studies (the study of all forms of art and literature across all languages). When it comes to date nights, my idea of fun is watching a 2-hour movie, then spending 3 hours dissecting the thematic overtones and the director’s influences.
And now I want to tell you the story of “A Chorus Line.”
If you’re a musical person you might already know where I’m going with this, but bear with me. See, “A Chorus Line” is considered by many to be one of the finest musicals ever written, and for some musical fans it might be one of the greatest stories ever told. Based on the true life stories of actual dancers, it follows a group of people auditioning to be in the Broadway chorus, telling their life stories and what brought them to this point. Some get the job, some get cut, and the whole experience is sad, moving, and exciting for the audience.
When the show was in workshops and playing for preview audiences, the creators found the ending didn’t have the impact they thought it should. After one performance, a playwright friend informed them why the ending was flopping.
One of the characters, Cassie, gets cut.
See, Cassie wasn’t just another performer in the audience’s mind. From the very beginning she’s separated, shown to be different. Unlike the other characters who are after fame, fun or furthering their careers, Cassie is a failed leading lady who just wants to be a dancer again. She calls it ‘coming home’ and ‘finding a reason to wake up in the morning,’ and by the time she’s done singing “Music and the Mirror” she’s not just a character to the audience, she’s the vehicle for their own hopes and dreams. She’s the audience’s proof that no matter how horrible life gets, there’s always a chance to come home. That’s why, when she gets cut right at the end, the audience is so busy feeling outraged at the injustice being shown her that they can’t appreciate the deep, moving, artistic journey of the rest of the musical.
But the story’s based off of real life, the writer complained, and in real life Cassie would get cut. But no, it didn’t matter. For the story to work, the ending had to change.
And they changed it. And did I mention? “A Chorus Line” is one of the longest running and highest grossing musicals of all time.
I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. You see, Bioware should change their ending, not for the fans and not for the money, but for the sake of the story. They truly had the chance to make something special, something I would have called video game’s first entry into true literary art. But instead they messed it up, undercutting all their artistic buildup with a bad ending.
“What?” you say, “But that ending was totally artistic! It had symbolism, it had death and sadness and mood lighting and everything!”
Yes, and that’s the point. They tried too hard.
The Mass Effect series up until the ending of 3 was what Tolkien called “Alternate History” as opposed to “Allegory.” It was also the video game equivalent to what genre writers call Orwellian Prose. This means the story didn’t hit us over the head with allegory, symbolism, and the artist’s hand, but instead maintained a level of internal story cohesion and transparent storytelling techniques, then left it up to the audience to pull messages, symbols, and allegories out of the story based on their own backgrounds, worldviews, and in the case of Mass Effect, their own choices. Instead of one message, the game provided hundreds of messages based on what the player experienced.
And then what happened right at the end? They threw out the entire Orwellian basis of their game and started hitting us over the head with a theme. Now, maybe the theme they presented really was the theme in someone’s playthrough, but it wasn’t in mine. Yes there were some themes that were universal through all playthroughs, but those were they very artistic messages they undercut by being too heavy-handed at the end.
Don’t believe me? Let me demonstrate.
Remember the outcry over Shepard’s death? Everyone was up in arms about him dying? It wasn’t just fans mad about not getting their Asari babies. It was because, thematically speaking, Shepard was supposed to live.
Don’t get me wrong, the game did carry a strong theme about self-sacrifice in the name of duty, but just like Cassie in A Chorus Line, Shepard existed on a separate thematic line entirely. In all three games, Shepard could arguably be defined as primarily a survivor. No matter which background you selected for Shepard, it always carries the context of “You became a Spectre because you survived what few people could.”
At the end of the first game, they crash a piece of Sovereign into the council tower, just so they can make it look like Shepard died before having him jump into view, alive and well.
In the second game, Shepard survives death. Let me reiterate that. Shepard DIES and comes BACK from the grave; not even death itself can stop him. Later, he goes on what’s supposed to be a suicide mission and yet he still comes back alive.
Shepard by this point is not just a character. A Character can die, but Shepard has become the embodiment of surviving. He’s proof that no matter what happens, we can survive with enough grit and determination.
But that’s just one thematic thread. If that were the only thing, people would have just been sad about his death. But you remember that heavy-handed symbolism they packed into the ending? That’s what really did it.
If you didn’t understand the symbolism, let me just go over it briefly. God (Hologram Kid) appears to Shepard and gives him access to Deity-like power to alter the universe as he sees fit. Afterward, Joker and EDI/someone from the crew (Adam and Eve) crash on a garden planet (The Garden of Eden) to start a new life.
According to these symbols, do you know what role Shepard just got cast as? Jesus Christ.
Ok, but so what if Shepard’s a Christ figure? In Christian doctrine, Christ dies to save humanity right? Yes… but here’s the thing: Shepard had already died. He died and was resurrected in the second game, and even if you’re not Christian you probably know what happens next: the immortal Christ ascends to heaven. Most gamers might not realize this, but we’ve all seen so many stories based off of this pattern in the past that in the back of our minds we all know how it’s supposed to end, and Christ dying a second time is not it.
That’s the real reason Shepard’s death outraged fans so much. The average gamer might not be able to articulate it, but in the back of his subconscious mind he knows that’s not how the story’s supposed to end. The Greek hero does not die after already descending to the underworld and making it out alive, and Christ does not die after he already died. That’s why to the audience it wasn’t just a sad ending, it really felt like a betrayal. They invoked every theme, symbol and archetypal story they could to tell us Shepard was supposed to live, and then killed him.
See, when millions of fans hate your ending, it’s not just a desire for happy alien babies, it’s an artistic problem that they don’t quite know how to articulate.
“But what about artistic integrity?” you shout. “If they changed the ending, it would create a bad precedent! People might start testing their stories on audiences before publishing them!”
I hope so!
See, the idea that an artist creates a literary piece of work like a book, movie, or game without input is bull. Forgetting the collaborative nature of games and film, even the greatest book authors will send their manuscripts out to dozens of alpha readers, (people trained in storytelling) to get input. The author has been slaving over the same story for months if not years, and while he knows it works well in his head, he needs that input from an impartial source to make sure the story in his head is actually what he put on the page. Then, after a few more edits, the manuscript gets sent out to beta readers (people who aren’t trained in storytelling) to get the average audience member’s reaction and to catch any final mistakes.
You know why so many Hollywood movie end the same? It’s not because they test their endings, like some game reviewers have suggested. It’s because, like games, movies cost a lot of money to make. The average studio has to make dozens of movies that are guaranteed to make a modest profit in order to fund the more artistic, risky movies that hopefully win awards and wow critics. It’s the same reason we have so many Halo/Call of Duty clones and copy-cat games in our medium: The studio wants a game guaranteed a return at least a modest profit.
Art in games will only be killed if creators stop taking risks, and field testing the story will not kill that risk, it will improve the chances of success. It lets the creator check to see if the story he told is the story he set out to tell, just like novelists and filmmakers do. It’s a way of checking to see if there’s a problem you were just ‘too close to the work’ to see.
And more importantly, it helps the creator make something he can be proud to call art.
See, we’re always talking about video games as art. We talk about all the strides we’ve made, the experiences we have, and how one day we’ll make games that sit alongside the rest of history’s great artworks. Once, I even insisted to someone that ten years from now, college literature courses will study video games right alongside books and film, and the Mass Effect series was the game I believed would be the first work studied as an example of video games as narrative art.
Except the ending crippled that artistic promise.
But wait! In the age of DLC we can easily release a new ending and try again, right? Heck, Virginia Wolf changed and re-published her work so many times just because she wasn’t satisfied that it’s a joke among English scholars. She did it and no one cried foul; in fact she’s considered one of history’s greatest writers! So Bioware can do it too, yeah? Except they’re not. Claiming to be “standing by their artists,” they’ve announced a bigger epilogue, but no new ending to the game.
Maybe they just don’t know about the historical precedent for artists changing their work to make it better? Maybe, maybe not, but to me Bioware is feeling less like a company standing up for artistic integrity and more like a kid who, after getting his book back from an editor, promptly sticks his fingers in his ears and starts shouting “No! You don’t understand! You don’t get it! I’m brilliant! You’re just too stupid to get it! I don’t have to change anything!”
What should have gone down in history as gaming’s first addition to the literary world will instead go down in history as a mediocre blockbuster of yesteryear. What should have been proof that games are a medium for true narrative art will instead (hopefully) be forgotten alongside all the other dross of the past.
And that is perhaps the most tragic ending of all.
Written by Adam Meyers


  1. Shepard gained immortality through his actions, and therefore 'lives' (as you so eloquently put it) much more vibrantly than otherwise possible.

    That's the whole point of the conversation with Liara in which she asks how Shepard wants to be remembered.

    Don't get me wrong: the ending could have been better (more stimulating, both emotionally and intellectually), but there are plenty of persons out there, like me, who (mostly) silently accept and appreciate the experience of the game.

  2. But therein lies the problem. In the context of the third game only their decision could have made sense, but in the context of the entire series it was the wrong ending. It was a decision made by the artist in an effort to appear more 'artistic' rather than a decision made in service to the needs of the artwork itself, and that is the difference between 'nice' art and great art.

  3. A bigger explanation: In context of the third game only, they were subtly hinting that Shepard would die. In context of the entire series, they were just setting up the next great survival. "Oh Shepard, you can't expect to stop Sovereign and come out alive!" And he does. "Oh shepard, you're good but you can't go on a suicide mission and come out alive!" And he does. "Ok, you've survived twice, but you can't expect to stop the Reapers, who are destroyed galactic civilization and come out alive!" Aaaand...

    The problem was they undercut themselves by using the exact same tricks they'd previously used to establish how great a survivor Shepard was. If they'd framed Shepard's death in the same context of Mordins (if you don't shoot him) or the Turian leader's death (i.e., I die because I'm that dedicated to fulfilling my mission) they could have still pulled it off, but Shepard's death and "I'm going to die" foreshadowing too closely mirrored his previous survivalist encounters, and his death therefore felt too arbitrary to be emotionally satisfying.

  4. Mr Meyers, I enjoyed your post and I'd humbly like your opinion on something I posted in the BioWare forums.

    My issue, like yours, is thematic, not technical. I read quite a bit and I've played most of BioWare's games, and the ending just felt out of place thematically after so much build up. The theme of Chaos vs Order and perpetual balance was so strong in the story and in regards to the Reapers that the final scenes just felt petty and lacking. Just looking for your opinion on my post.


  5. No one likes being told how they should have restructured their work in such specifics, but I agree that would have been a much better and more satisfying theme to have explored. It would have worked better with what they'd already given us, and would have been more universal and less completely-against-what-some-play-throughs-involved. It wasn't as much a thematic analysis as a declaration of what should have been, but you're right: it would have worked so much better.

  6. Thanks. I guess I came off as pretty rude and demanding, which bothers me, so my bad on that one.

    The truth is I thought I saw the ending coming because I've known BioWare's style for so long; I was just blown away by how bland it was. It's not fair for me to say how it should have been different. I guess I'm frustrated.

    Thanks again.

  7. It wasn't rude, (especially compared to what forums often produce.) And I understand the frustration part. Like all, I hope they take the higher road and re-try the climax of their series.